Bollywood: fascinating as ever

Updated Oct 21, 2013 02:15pm

If there is an Indian film critic and journalist who is a celebrity in her own right, it is Anupama Chopra. Since her days as a young reporter at Movie magazine which she joined in 1989, Chopra has been in the filmi spotlight thanks to her incisive reviews in myriad national and international newspapers and magazines, stints on television (the popular television show ‘The Front Row’), not to mention several books on Hindi films (Sholay: The Making of a Classic, King of Bollywood: Shahrukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride).

The most recent of these books is First Day First Show: Writings from the Bollywood Trenches. The book contains a selection of some of Chopra’s best film reviews, articles and analysis on various emerging trends in Bollywood as well as insightful profiles, all of have which have either been excerpted or republished in their entirety.

First Day, First Show begins with a foreword by none other than Shahrukh Khan, who admits that Chopra once described him as “arrogant, volatile and energetic”. But Khan moves on to praise Chopra, whose work, he says, has “a genuine and natural objectivity … there is a certain non-filminess to it,” he writes. “She will neither gush because she loves movies and nor will she insert a personal agenda into her work. I may not agree with her view but I know that it is honest. I like the simplicity of her writing. I like that it is never over elaborate.”

Khan’s foreword, in a way, sets the tone of the book — it summarises within just a few pages the journey of the film industry many of us know and love so well. He recounts that less than 20 years ago, when an actor asked the director about the story of the film he was being asked to sign up for, he was just told who the other cast members were. It was also the time many actors worked up to 72 hours at a stretch. This has, of course, changed — scripts are now completed before the shooting begins, the actors’ schedules are far more organised, and the industry is overall far more professional.

While First Day, First Show does take a detour to the 1970s in the form of a prologue which is an excerpt from Sholay: The Making of a Classic, it primarily charts the journey of the film industry between 1993 and 2010. It’s not a book that requires great levels of grey cells, but it does keep you well-engaged. This is mainly because there is variety on offer.

For instance, while one chapter may explore in great depth the challenges that the Film and Television Institute of India faces, another, with painstaking detail, will survey the impact on Bollywood storylines of the increasing revenue film producers reap from the overseas market. Others still will cast spotlight on the various trends that the industry has witnessed and the controversies that have been spawned over the years, including Bollywood’s mafia connections, the shortcuts writers take (read: copy entire scenes from Hollywood blockbusters), the trend of stars hiring designers, the financial side of the modelling and advertising business, and the urban-rural divide of the audience. Chopra also looks at the emergence of the independent film industry, the increasing number of security companies following the murder of producer Gulshan Kumar in 1997, the growth of social media within film journalistic circles, the rise of sex in movies and why Bollywood is now deemed uber cool (it’s all about money, apparently).

To counter these more ‘serious’ pieces, the book has plenty of frivolous and fun articles, specifically the short, sharp and snappy film reviews. These centre on a wide range of movies, from those that were super hits of their time, such as Aankhen and Khalnayak in the 1990s and the more recent Dabang and Rajneeti, to more obscure ones such as Jimmy (ever heard of it?), of which Chopra writes: “Jimmy is that rare thing — a film so bad it’s good. True Bollywood connoisseurs have a list of these, which usually includes Sheetal’s Honey and Manoj Kumar’s Clerk.” It brought to my mind the scene from Clerk in which Anita Raj tries to inhale the smoke that Manoj Kumar has just exhaled from his cigarette. I’m pretty sure that is what Chopra is referring to, when she adds in her review of Jimmy: “These are films that feel delirious, like the director was either smoking something strong or was suffering from some tropical malady …”

But reviews aside, perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are Chopra’s incisive profiles — of the people that form the soul of Bollywood. Her subjects range from Madhuri Dixit to Neena Gupta, from Amitabh Bachchan to Govinda, and from Naseeruddin Shah to Rekha. The profile of Rekha, the ultimate diva, like whom there is no other (and nor will there be, I believe), is aptly titled ‘Temptress. Enchantress. Empress. Rekha.’ Chopra fittingly describes her as a “Rorschach test,” “a Hindi movie miracle” and “the queen of camouflage,” among other things, only to elaborate thus: “Long after her contemporaries have retired into marriage and motherhood, she soldiers on. Not in vapid bhabhi roles but as characters that shape the narrative … In her self-imposed confinement, Rekha has bloomed. For her life is a ritual, to be lived with grace, style and, always, romance. As [Sanjay Leela] Bhansali says, ‘It is the way I imagine Cleopatra or Meena Kumari in Pakeezah must have lived.’ So even writing a letter must be imbued with elegance — she makes her own stationery. She also designs her own costumes, sketches, writes poetry and spends time gardening.”

Ultimately, with profiles of top actors, reviews of the most landmark films and in-depth and analytic essays centring on the biggest trends that have shaped the industry, First Day First Show is (almost) as fascinating as Bollywood itself — which is why it should be on the must-read list of every Bollywood enthusiast.

The reviewer is the author of the novella, Seasons of Silence

First Day First Show: Writings from the Bollywood Trenches (Film) By Anupama Chopra Penguin Books, India ISBN 9780143065944 376pp.


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